How can I solve his sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety?

Practical Horseman - - Here's How -

Re­cently, my 15-year-old geld­ing has be­come very at­tached to an­other geld­ing on the farm. He’s not be­hav­ing dan­ger­ously (yet) when taken away from his buddy, but he neighs and seems gen­er­ally very anx­ious when alone. I’m wor­ried he’s stressed and that his anx­i­ety will es­ca­late with time. How do I help him over­come his at­tach­ment?

CAMIE HELESKI, PhD

This be­hav­ior is natural, though chal­leng­ing, to deal with. In the wild, horses ben­e­fit from hav­ing strong bonds with one an­other. Although this can make life more dif­fi­cult for horse own­ers, I still strongly rec­om­mend pro­vid­ing horses plenty of turnout in the com­pany of oth­ers, rather than deny­ing them this natural so­cial con­nec­tion.

Do­mes­ti­cated horses seem to de­velop the worst sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety when they live to­gether in pairs for long pe­ri­ods of time. Typ­i­cally, the horse who is left be­hind in the barn or pas­ture gets more up­set than the one you take away. Keep­ing horses in groups of at least three is of­ten much more man­age­able, as you can take one out with­out leav­ing one alone.

Re­gard­less, your horse’s be­hav­ior likely will im­prove over time. Horses have a re­mark­able abil­ity to get used to scary or chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions like these. For ex­am­ple, they will ini­tially re­act in fear to hot-air bal­loons fly­ing over­head. But if it con­tin­ues to hap­pen with any fre­quency, they’ll re­act a lit­tle less each time un­til they’re com­pletely ac­cus­tomed to the bal­loons. The same thing hap­pens in the wild: Horses be­come ha­bit­u­ated to things that are seem­ingly dangerous at first so long as those things re­cur fre­quently with no neg­a­tive re­sults.

Fre­quency is the key. If you re­move your horse from his buddy once a month, his be­hav­ior might not im­prove sig­nif­i­cantly. But if you do it three times a week, you may be sur­prised how quickly he im­proves.

It al­ways helps to break big chal­lenges into tiny steps. For ex­am­ple, it would be too much to ask a horse to cross a stream for the first time on his first trail ride with­out any com­pan­ions. You’d be more suc­cess­ful in­tro­duc­ing stream cross­ings in the com­pany of an ex­pe­ri­enced horse be­fore at­tempt­ing them on your own.

If your horse gets anx­ious alone in the barn or in the ring at home, put his buddy in an ad­ja­cent stall or pad­dock where he can see him. Then grad­u­ally move the buddy far­ther away over sub­se­quent ses­sions. Try to stay calm and ig­nore any anx­ious be­hav­ior ei­ther horse ex­hibits. Rais­ing your emo­tional level by yelling, for ex­am­ple, will just up­set him fur­ther.

When he is the one left be­hind in the stall or pad­dock, give him some hay to distract him. (Be sure to check that your fenc­ing is sturdy and safe be­fore leav­ing him alone in a pas­ture.) Keep the sep­a­ra­tion pe­ri­ods short at first so he can get used to the idea grad­u­ally. With enough rep­e­ti­tion, he will im­prove.

You may find it eas­i­est to trailer him alone. Horses tend to bond quickly with one an­other when trail­ered in pairs. If you then tie one of those horses to the trailer and take the other away, the for­mer will be un­der­stand­ably dis­traught. If you must trailer with an­other horse, but have the op­tion to sta­ble on the show­grounds, con­sider ask­ing the show man­ager to place the two horses far apart, in sep­a­rate barns if pos­si­ble. When you ar­rive, un­load one horse at his barn and then drive the other to his. Ideally, they’ll never know that they’re on the same grounds. This can be more dif­fi­cult lo­gis­ti­cally—es­pe­cially if you and the other horse’s owner are shar­ing a tack stall—but your horse will adapt quickly and whinny much less.

On the other hand, if he gets ner­vous be­ing alone in the show ring—and even the most ex­pe­ri­enced horses can have trou­ble tran­si­tion­ing from group classes to show­ing alone, for ex­am­ple, in a dres­sage ring—it’s OK to po­si­tion a calm babysit­ter ring­side. Have a friend stand with the babysit­ter as close to the ring as the rules al­low and be sure your horse knows he’s there be­fore you en­ter the ring. Over time, with plenty of rep­e­ti­tion and pa­tience, his con­fi­dence will grow and your friend can grad­u­ally po­si­tion the babysit­ter far­ther and far­ther away.

Equine-pro­gram in­struc­tor Dr. Camie Heleski taught at Michi­gan State Univer­sity for 25 years be­fore ac­cept­ing her cur­rent role as a se­nior lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Ken­tucky Col­lege of Agri­cul­ture, Food and En­vi­ron­ment. Her re­search fo­cuses pri­mar­ily on equine wel­fare and be­hav­ior. She is also the president of the In­ter­na­tional So­ci­ety for Eq­ui­tation Science, which en­cour­ages “eth­i­cal eq­ui­tation” by pro­mot­ing sci­en­tific re­search de­signed to study the most hu­mane ways to train and care for horses. (For more in­for­ma­tion on this or­ga­ni­za­tion and to read its po­si­tion state­ments on var­i­ous is­sues, go to www.eq­ui­tation­science.com.) A life­long rider, Dr. Heleski has shown Ara­bi­ans, hunt seat, Western and sad­dle seat and now en­joys prac­tic­ing low­er­level dres­sage.

If your horse struggles with sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety, keep sep­a­ra­tion pe­ri­ods short at first so he can get used to the idea grad­u­ally.

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